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Book Notes: “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr

Summary

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (10th anniversary edition, 2020) is critical exploration on the impact of the internet on human cognition. The impact has brought positive and negative changes, but it is the latter that is given the spotlight. These deleterious effects were poorly understood and readily dismissed in 2010 when Carr first published The Shallows. In the ensuing decade, smartphones and social media have achieved an unparalleled cultural primacy and Carr’s message is not so easily disregarded.

Carr wrote this book because he observed—with great alarm—that deep, focused reading was becoming increasingly difficult for him and his peers. In an early chapter, he articulates his foreboding: “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” The lie we tell ourselves, says Carr, is that the technology doesn’t matter. “It’s just a tool,” the pundits say, “how we use the technology is what really matters.” But Carr strongly disagrees with this notion: “media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.”

Readers are familiar with the litany of maladies Carr highlights: loss of focus, constant need for stimuli, cognitive overwhelm, disorienting context-switching, diminished short-term and long term memory, and emotional anxiety just to name a few. Carr doesn’t rely solely on anecdotes and abstractions, he deftly weaves cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research into his narrative from fields like neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The result is an astonishing, but always accessible, scientific basis for the impacts of internet consumption, usage and reliance on human cognition. For instance, you will learn—in great detail—about the neural connections in our brains and how they grow or wither based on our selected activities.

In some ways, this book is the spiritual successor to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Like Postman’s classic, Carr’s book is equally relevant for today’s always-connected, smartphone-toting, digital consumer. It’s a short book, but extremely dense in ideas (frankly, this was a tougher read than anticipated). The Shallows forces the reader to confront a number of deeply ensconced habits and beliefs with respect to digital technology. This is a discomforting proposition: I appreciated the message, but I didn’t enjoy reading about it. Nevertheless, if the ability to provoke introspection is one measure of a book’s worth, there’s no doubt that The Shallows delivers.

Pros: Short book that’s idea-dense and rewarding (tougher read than it looks on the surface!).

Cons: This book is cognitive spinach: you don’t want to eat it, but deep down you know it’s good for you.

Verdict: 7/10


Notes & Highlights

Introduction to the Second Edition

  • We must be aware that a medium shapes both the information it presents and our response to said information in a number of ways.
  • “It takes patience and concentration to evaluate new information—to gauge its accuracy, to weight its relevance and worth, to put it into context—and the Internet, by design, subverts patients and concentration.”
  • “When the brain is overloaded by stimuli, as it usually is when we’re peering into a network-connected computer screen, attention splinters, thinking becomes superficial, and memory suffers. We become less reflective and more impulsive.”

Prologue: The Watchdog and the Thief

  • 1964: Marshall McLuhan (media critic/philosopher) publishes Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

    • Famous quote: “The medium is the message.”
    • When new technology is introduced, the public’s focus is on the new content created and delivered by the medium.
    • McLuhan’s insight was that the medium itself has properties, characteristics and proclivities that shapes and alters the contents, ideas and conversations it fosters. This phenomenon affects individuals and society as a whole.
    • “In the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”
  • The lie we tell ourselves: The technology doesn’t matter. It’s how we use it that matters. McLuhan and Carr disagree: the medium matters because it shapes the message. The medium is not an inert force or neutral conveyance.
  • McLuhan: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” The content of a medium is “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

Chapter 1: Hal and Me

  • Carr wrote this book because he noticed that deep, focused reading was becoming increasingly difficult for both him and his peers.
  • “And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”
  • Some of the behaviors engendered by massive data, bite-sized data, attention grabbing data served by the Internet: skimming, scrolling, rapid-response, black/white arguments, oversimplifications, memes and hot-take reactions, outrageousness and outrage.
  • Google and tools like it enable rapid retrieval of snippets of information. Per a 2008 Rhodes scholar: Sitting down and going through a book from cover to over doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.”
  • We no longer need to read in a linear, logical approach. We can cherry pick ideas of interest. Jump to passages deemed relevant and skip over the rest.
  • The linear thought process is no longer the prevailing way to approach ideas and the communication of said ideas.

    • This linear approach is slower and more methodical. It requires careful communication on part of the writer and skillful consideration on part of the reader.
    • The newer approach favors short bursts of information that is disjointed. Speed is an essential characteristic.
  • Consider how the internet has changed your behaviors?

    • Do you need to feed your mind with constant doses of new information?
    • Do you need or yearn to be connected every hour of the day?
    • How much control do you have over your attention?

Chapter 2: The Vital Paths

  • Friedrich Nietsche on the influence of his typewriter on his work: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
  • Modern scientific research suggests that the adult human brain remains malleable or “plastic” throughout one’s life.

    • The old view was that our brains, once we reached early adulthood, were largely fixed.
    • The current view is that new neural circuits can form throughout our lives. Old neural connections can grow stronger or weaker depending on our behaviors and activities.
  • Biologist Eric Kandel’s work on sea slugs suggests that “synapses can undergo large and enduring changes in strength after only a relatively small amount of training.”
  • “Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live—and, as Nietzsche sensed, through the tools we use.”
  • The paradox of neuroplasticity: It grants us mental flexibility but can lock us into right behaviors.
  • Once we’ve created new behaviors, the mind tends to continue activating those same behaviors.
  • “Plastic does not mean elastic...our neural loops don’t snap back to their former state the way a rubber band does; they hold onto their changed state.”
  • Norman Doidge (psychiatrist): “If we stop exercising our mental skills we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.”

Chapter 3: Tools of the Mind

  • The tools humans have invented have given us new ways of thinking.
  • “The mechanical clock changed the way we saw ourselves...once the clock had redefined time as a series of units of equal duration, our minds began to stress the methodical mental work of division and measurement. We began to see, in all things and phenomena, the pieces that composed the whole, and then we began to see the pieces of which the pieces were made.”
  • Four categories of technology:

    1. Tools of strength, power, dexterity or physical enhancement. Examples: The plow, the darning needle, the fighter jet.
    2. Tools that improve our senses. Example: The microscope, the amplifier, the Geiger counter.
    3. Tools that let us reshape nature to our needs. Example: The reservoir, the birth control pill, genetically modified corn.
    4. Tools we use to expand or support our mental powers: The typewriter, the abacus, the sextant, the clock, the book, newspaper, school, library, computer and the Internet.
  • “Intellectual technologies...often promote new ways of thinking or extend to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group.”

  • Intellectual ethic: the message that a medium or tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users.

  • The debate between determinists and instrumentalists:

    • Determinists: Per McLuhan, and others, humans are at the mercy of the machines/technology.
    • Instrumentalists: Users are firmly in control of their tools.
  • “In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use.”

  • The development of writing:

    • 8000 BC: Clay tokens engraved with simple symbols for accounting of livestock.
    • 4000 BC: Sumerians develop cuneiform and Egyptians develop hieroglyphs.
    • 750 BC: Greeks develop the first complete phonetic alphabet. Per Maryanne Wolff (cognitive neuroscience): Phonetic alphabets results in more efficient recognition and cognition since reading required fewer perceptual and memory resources.
  • The development of the phonetic alphabet hastened the transition from oral civilizations to literate, written civilizations.

  • “In a purely oral culture, thinking is governed by the capacity of human memory. Knowledge is what you recall, and what you recall is limited to what you can hold in your mind.”

  • Serious thought and the dissemination of serious thought requires memory systems. The written word is a superior memory system to memory of the oral tradition.

  • Literacy was a prerequisite for the flourishing of many disciplines of knowledge including science, philosophy, mathematics, literature and more.

Chapter 4: The Deepening Page

  • Early written media:

    • Clay tablets (~4000 BC): One of the first mediums for writing. Difficult to prepare, carry and store. Usage was limited to formal government documents.
    • Papyrus scrolls (~2500 BC): Via the Egyptian Nile delta. Flexible, portable, and easy to store. Still costly to produce and import. Scrolls were adopted by the Greeks and Romans as the primary writing medium.
    • Wax tablets (~1400 BC): Boxes (folded like books) with facing wax “sheets” that could be inscribed and then “erased” (smoothed out) provided a reusable, albeit semi-permanent medium for writing.
    • Books (~1 AD): Sewn parchment sheets between rigid rectangles of leather were the first real books. Pages were two-sided which made them efficient for writing. Also fairly compact.
  • Silent reading was unknown early in the history of literacy. St. Augustine (380 AD) mentions how astonished he was to witness the bishop of Milan reading silently to himself.

  • Developments in syntax and grammar:

    • Scriptura continua: Early writing used no spaces between words.
    • Middle Ages: Word order and word spacing are increasingly standardized. This made reading less cognitively challenging.
    • 14th century: Punctuation marks become increasingly common.
  • “As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate more resources to the interpretation of meaning. What we today call ‘deep reading’ becomes possible.”

  • The developments in syntax and grammar resulted in better developed arguments and more clearly reasoned ideas.

  • “Writing began to take on, and to disseminate, a new intellectual ethic: the ethic of the book. The development of knowledge became an increasingly private act, with each reader creating, in his own mind, a personal synthesis of the ideas, and information passed down through the writings of other thinkers. The sense of individualism strengthened.”

  • Gutenberg’s Printing Press (1445):

    • Johannes Gutenberg creates a system that uses movable type in Mainz, Germany.
    • The printing press made the public production of books faster and cheaper than ever.
    • The printing press changed the economics of publishing.
    • Books went from being expensive and scarce to affordable and abundant.
  • Octavo Format (1501):

    • A smaller, pocket-book sized book format.
    • Books became even smaller, more affordable and more portable.
    • “Miniaturization of the book helped weave book-reading into the fabric of everyday life.”
  • “Books allowed readers to compare their thoughts and experiences not just with religious precepts...but with the thoughts and experiences of others. The social and cultural consequences were as widespread as they were profound, ranging from religious and political upheaval to the ascendancy of the scientific method as the central means for defining truth and making sense of existence.”

  • “As our ancestors imbued their minds with the discipline to follow a line of argument of narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative.”

Chapter 5: A Medium of the Most General Nature

  • Alan Turing (mathematician): The Turing machine, an imaginary computing device (essentially a computing model) which can simulate any computer algorithm.

  • Turin's insight was that digital computers are equivalent: “Speed apart, it is unnecessary to design various new machines to do various computing processes. They can all be done with one digital computer, suitably programmed for each case.”

  • The modern computer is limitlessly adaptable since all other mediums and information can be translated into digital code (be it music, video, photos, etc.).

  • Historically, speed has been the biggest impediment to computing: processing speed and network bandwidth.

  • Development of the internet has followed improvements in memory and bandwidth:

    • Text was the primary content type of the 1990s
    • Photos and audio gained popularity in the 2000s
    • Video has become increasingly popular int he 2010s
  • The internet, owing to computing universal applicability, has subsumed almost every industry and prior medium in some way. Examples: the newspaper industry (print), the record industry (audio), the television industry (video), etc. (to say nothing of commerce and communication).

  • The internet allows for bidirectional interactions:

    • Information exchange
    • Business and commerce
    • Social interactions
  • “It’s often assumed that the time we devote to the Net comes out of the time we would otherwise spend watching TV. But statistics suggest otherwise. Most studies of media activity indicate that as Net use has gone up, television viewing has either held steady or increased.” [Note this is from 2010. It’s possible that video programming remains up although that activity has moved from traditional television hardware to phones and tablets.]

  • Book reading is one casualty of the increase in Net use.

  • Content that was once distributed by special purpose media (like books, newspapers, phonographs, etc) is now mediated via a single medium. The result is that all content types now play be a similar set of rules under the unifying medium.

  • Old technologies may remain, but the new technologies drive production, consumption and culture. The new technologies shape the behaviors and perceptions of the general population.

  • McLuhan: “A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”

  • “When the Net absorbs a medium, it recreates that medium in its own image...it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.”

    • Example: Hyperlinks alter our media experience; hyperlinks are designed to catch our attention and takes us away from the initial content.
    • Example: Search engines result in content fragmentation. Search results surface specific snippets to users.
  • Author acknowledges the benefits to features like interactivity, hyperlinking, search ability and multimedia. He does want the reader to consider the costs associated with these properties too.

  • Content creators must adapt to the realities and rules of the new medium: “Many producers are chopping up their products to fit the shorter attention spans of online consumers, as well as to raise their profiles on search engines.”

  • Tyler Cowen (economist): When access to information is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty.”

  • Net’s influence expands beyond the screen. Traditional products, including physical ones, must consider reshaping their experience or form to better resemble what people experience online.

    • Example: Magazine layouts: shorter articles, capsule summaries, burbs and pull quotes and more browsable formats.

Chapter 6: The Very Image of a Book

  • This chapter considers the ebook and how it will impact the creation and consumption of textual content.
  • “The Kindle turns the words of books into hypertext. You can click on a word or phrase and be taken to a related dictionary entry, Wikipedia article, or list of Google search results.”
  • Carr argues that once you inject a book with links and web connectivity, it is no longer a book as the experience is uniquely different: “An e-book is no more a book than an online newspaper is a newspaper.”
  • The ebook “turns into something very like a Web site. ITs words become wrapped in all the distractions of the networked computer. Its links and other digital enhancements propel the reader hither and yon.”
  • Changes in readings style results in changes in writing style. Readers expectations will change and writers must adapt to these changes.
  • “It does seem inevitable that the Web’s tendency to turn all media into social media will have a far-reaching effect on styles of reading and writing and hence on language itself.”
  • Social consumption leads to “groupies” where people read with a sense of belonging rather than for knowledge or pleasure.
  • “As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style.”
  • Writing as a means for recording chatter (consider Facebook, Instagram and Twitter).
  • Consider the permanence of traditional books vs. the transience and provisional nature of digital text.

    • Published books are finished texts.
    • Electronic texts are impermanent and changeable.
  • “It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work.”

Chapter 7: The Juggler’s Brain

  • “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”
  • The Net captures and redirects our attention in a number of ways:

    • Instant reward and positive reinforcements (example: click on a link and get something new, novel and entertaining).
    • Interruptions through instance communications and realtime notifications.
    • Instant gratification via social engagement and affirmation suck as likes, retweets, followers, comments.
    • Status seeking
  • “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.”

  • “The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information.”

  • Working memory and long-term memory:

    • Working memory is limited to 2-4 elements at a time (“the mind’s scratch pad”).
    • Long-term memory is mind’s “filing system.” Long-term memory stores complex concepts, models and schemas. It turns fragmented information into patterns of knowledge.
    • Information in working memory gets transferred to long-term memory in a deliberate and systematic manner.
  • Cognitive load is the amount of information flowing into working memory. If cognitive load is too high, the information flow exceeds our ability to process the information into long-term memory. The result is a failure to properly learn, process and retain information.
  • High cognitive load creates challenges in distinguishing what’s relevant or important (discerning the signal from the noise).
  • The internet makes it easy, via cognitive overload, to become a mindless consumer of data.
  • “Research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.”
  • “Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious.”
  • Switching costs: the cognitive cost of reorienting our attention after our attention has been shifted or interrupted.
  • Christopher Chablis (psychologist): “We crave the new even when we know that the new is often more trivial than essential.”
  • Internet reading encourages skimming and rapid scanning. Skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading; the way we make sense of information.
  • “Improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively.”
  • “The Net is making us smarter...only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards.”
  • Clifford Nass (communications professor): Intensive multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.
  • Michael Merzenich (neuroscientist): As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to crap.”

Chapter 8: The Church of Google

  • Taylorism: A factory management system that seeks to identify the “one best method” of work to achieve maximum efficiency, speed and output. Originates from the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the first management consultants.
  • Taylorism embodies the values of both the industrial and digital eras: “The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the ‘one best way’—the perfect algorithm—to carry out the mental movements of what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work.”
  • One goal of Taylorism: Systematization of everything. This requires data-driven analyses and quantification of everything.
  • Google has taken up the mantle of Taylorism in the Information Age: “What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing fo rate work of the mind.”

    • Google’s use of A/B testing to determine how to optimize the most minute details (the famous 40 shades of blue experiment where Google tested many iterations of link colors).
    • Google’s use of cognitive psychology research to encourage desired user behaviors.
  • Neil Postman’s summation of Taylorism from Technopoly (1993):

    1. The primary goal of human effort is efficiency.
    2. Technical calculation is superior to human judgment.
    3. Human judgement cannot be trusted (due to laxity of thought, errors, etc.).
    4. Subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking.
    5. What cannot be measured is of no value.
    6. The affairs of citizens are best guided by experts.
  • In the case of Google (and its peers), replace the idea of “experts” guiding the general populace with optimized algorithms.

  • The Google of 2010 had enmeshed in its efforts to “organize all knowledge” in an aura of righteousness and nobility of cause [me: in 2020 there’s no doubt that the “don’t be evil” ethos of early Google is long gone both from a corporate and a from the public’s perspective.]

  • Google’s search innovations:

    • Original pagerank algorithm treated links as citations. Citations are signals of relative content value.
    • Advertising can be matched to search results and auctioned off in a marketplace to advertisers.
    • Ad placements are determined not only by price but by clickthroughs (ensuring that ads remain relevant).
    • Clicks and pageviews provide Google with information about consumer behaviors and preferences which in turn generates more value for the overall system.
    • Google’s interest is to drive users activity and consumption: “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.”
  • “Google, as the supplier of the Web’s principal navigational tools, also shapes our relationship with the content that it serves up so efficiently and in such profusion.”

  • Dynamic and plentiful content has resulted in an arms race of sorts when it comes to content “freshness” and abundance. Platforms and content providers “innovate” to develop more, faster, bite-sized content in order to maintain a leg up on the competition and retain users and encourage greater consumption.

  • Business complements: Products and services that are consumed together or that encourage consumption of a particular good. For instance, mustard is a complement to hot dogs.

    • Companies like Google expand and extend their service offerings in order to drive usages of their underlying business.
    • Consider how many of Google’s unprofitable (or less lucrative) ventures serve as complements to the core business (e.g. YouTube, Android, gmail, etc.)
  • “Google wants information to be free because, as the cost of information falls, we all spend more time looking at computer screens, and the company’s profits go up.”

  • The digital computer offers a pervasive metaphor for how we view the world and our own minds. Consider our proclivity to speak of ideas and thinking in terms of circuits, wiring, inputs, programming, etc. In the digital era we run risk of taking this metaphor too far.

    • Consider the idea that the human mind is itself a computer.
    • Consider the problems with equating intelligence with data processing efficiency.
  • In Google’s world, which is the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the pensive stillness of deep reading or the fuzzy indirection of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive—and better algorithms to steer the course of its thought.”

Chapter 9: Search, Memory

  • Chapter considers the role of physical and digital records and how they interact with human memory.
  • The reliance on personal memory has diminished with each successive media breakthrough. First with the writing and books. Later with the digitization of all knowledge.
  • Commonplace books: A type of personal knowledge system in which information is collected, referenced and developed in a notebook. Particularly popular in the renaissance and Enlightenment.

    • Francis Bacon (philosopher): A well-maintained commonplace supplies matter to invention.
    • Popularity of commonplace books declined in the 19th and 20th centuries as the pace of life quickened and people saw them as a waste of mental energy.
  • Artificial memory: Highly efficient storage of knowledge on new forms of media like audiotape, videotape, microfilm, microfiche, and computer drives.

  • “The arrival of the limitless and easily searchable data banks of the Internet brought a further shift, not just in the way we view memorization but in the way we view memory itself. The Net quickly came to be seen as a replacement for, rather than just supplement to, personal memory.”

  • The prevailing ethos of the digital age is that memorization is a waste of time.

  • Counterpoint, per William James (philosopher), is that “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.”

  • Short-term and long-term memory:

    • Consolidation phase: The process in which short-term memory (aka “working memory”) is transformed into more permanent long-term memory.
    • “The formation of long-term memories...involves not only biochemical changes but anatomical ones.” (owing to the improved strength of inter-neural connections and the growth of new synaptic terminals).
  • “Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been mislead by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory.”
  • “Once we bring an explicit long-term memory back into working memory, it becomes a short-term memory again. When we reconsolidate it, it gains a new set of connections—a new context.”
  • “Proponents of the outsourcing idea also confuse working memory with long-term memory. When a person fails to consolidate a fact, an idea, or an experience in long-term memory, he’s not ‘freeing up’ space in his brain for other functions.”
  • Long-term memory is not a zero-sum game. There isn’t a fixed amount of it. The plasticity of our minds means that there is no hard ceiling on our capacity to store long-term information and create connections between stored pieces of knowledge.
  • Terkel Klingberg (neuroscientist): “The amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless.”
  • Takeway: We strengthen our minds when we engage in committing ideas and knowledge to long-term memory. “With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence.”
  • Alternatively, treating the web as a substitute for personal memory robs our minds from growing and improving from this cognitive and biological process.
  • “The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetitions or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.
  • David Foster Wallace (writer) in a 2005 commencement address: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think...it means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
  • William James (philosopher): “The connecting is the thinking.”

Chapter 10: A Thing Like Me

  • Joseph Weizenbaum’s (programmer) ELIZA application was an early example of natural language processing and conversational pattern-matching. Demonstrates how easy it is to create machines that fool humans into believing machines can empathize and think like they do.
  • Weizenbaum: “What I had not realized is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.” (Speaking of the response people had to ELIZA)
  • Turing test: Developed by Alan Turing in 1950. The test is a way to determine if a machine can exhibit human levels of intelligence as perceived by a human observer. Two entities (one a machine and one a human) conduct a conversation via text-only channel. The identity of each entity is unknown to a third-party, the evaluator. If the evaluator cannot differentiate between human and machine, the machine passes the Turing test.
  • “The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers...is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.”
  • “Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.”
  • “An honest appraisal of any new technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.”
  • Christof van Nimwegen (cognitive psychologist): Externalizing or offloading problem solving to computers reduces our mind’s cognitive abilities. “The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.”
  • Consider whether computers and digital services are giving us the easy way, rather than the best way, when solving our problems.
  • “When we go online, we too, are following scripts written by others—algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us. When we search for information through Google...we’re following a script. When we look at a product recommended to us by Amazon or Netflix, we’re following a script...”
  • “The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.”
  • The internet diminishes our capacity for contemplation.

Afterword to the Second Edition

  • The smartphone replaced the desktop as the primary computing paradigm. The result is a portable, always “on” device that is even more distracting, demanding and addictive than its predecessors.
  • “It has allowed a handful of companies to hold sway over what we see, what we do, and how we express ourselves.”
  • Smartphones and their apps reinforce the status quo of the digital age.
  • Americans spend (at least) half their waking hours staring at screens.
  • Traditional television viewing was centered on evenings (prime time). Today, prime time is all the time.
  • Salience network: The brain system that regulates conscious decision-making, attention and stimuli. It is the “orchestrator of the self.” It grants priority to four types of stimuli:

    1. Novel and unexpected stimuli.
    2. Pleasurable and rewarding stimuli.
    3. Personally relevant stimuli.
    4. Emotionally engaging stimuli.
  • Consider that all of the above stimuli are supplied in droves by smartphones and apps.

  • “With the smartphone, the human race has succeeded in creating the most interesting thing in the world.”

  • Chamath Palihapitiya (Facebook executive): “You don’t realize it, but you [the consumer] are being programmed.”

  • The Google effect (aka “digital amnesia”): Phenomenon whereby we fail to commit important information to memory owing to its availability on Google or the internet.

  • Some studies have suggested that people suffer delusions of intelligence whereby through online information they mistakenly believe they are smarter and more knowledgeable than they are.

    • “That unhappy insight probably helps explain society’s current gullibility crisis, with its attendant plague of propaganda, dogma, and venom.”
    • “If your phone has blunted your powers of discernment, you’ll believe anything it tells you.”
  • “When we constrict our capacity for reasoning and recall, or transfer those skills to a machine or a corporation, we sacrifice the ability to turn information into knowledge. We get the data, but lose the meaning.”



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